A connoisseur of beautiful old things has created a French country house of effortless charm in the Bay of Plenty – with a little bit of Kiwi thrown in
The magical rural Tauranga property Rebecca-Jane Russell calls home has atmosphere in spades. Wine barrels, pebbled pathways, rustic wooden crates, cloches, stone walls, old pots, wrought-iron seating, urns and bird baths collaborate with the likes of lavender, shaped buxus, creeping ivy, poppies, citrus and olive trees to create a “plucked out of Provence” visual aspect.
A maple tree thrives inside a predominantly glass-walled room dubbed L’Orangerie at one end of the property, which provides obvious French flavour with mandatory citrus growing in tubs. Add panoramic views (the property sits high on a hilltop) and it’s hardly surprising L’Orangerie is increasingly in demand by those seeking an extra dose of wedding-day wonder.
The two-storey house is also enchanting – a blend of Kiwi woolshed-meets-French country, says Kiwi Rebecca-Jane who shares her home with not only her children, but now also her partner Jean-Francois Larue (who, very appropriately, is French).
Creating a home with a rural French ambience was always her desire, she says, but a Kiwi aesthetic had to be part of it, too. The downunder flavour comes courtesy of the home’s iron cladding and a plethora of doors opening out to the Bay of Plenty landscape.
Having a light-infused home was important to this former landscape designer, who was instrumental in the design of her house as well as its landscaping. She and her former husband initially lived elsewhere on the property in a “very dark house”.
Rebecca-Jane’s involvement in the build of her home has been very hands-on. When the towering macrocarpa ceilings in the main living area needed to be painted with a natural colour enhancer, Rebecca-Jane was the woman for the job. Likewise, she wielded the paintbrush upstairs, giving a whitewash treatment to the Lawson cypress ceilings in the bedroom wing and guest room above the orangery. She also assisted with the stonewashed painting treatment that was applied to many of the interior walls.
Never one to shy away from a challenge, Rebecca-Jane enrolled in an upholstery course so she could beautify the old velvet and tapestry-clad chairs that now mingle with church pews around the expansive table in the formal dining room.
However, the best job by far, she says, was fossicking for pieces to fill her home. A fox fur, framed equine prints, old doors, worn leather chairs, urns, birdcages, candelabra and wicker baskets are just some of her many finds. An old crocheted bedspread from Venice, for example, is artistically draped across the bathroom window beyond the claw-foot bath.
Among her most cherished reclaimed items are some arched stained-glass windows, which came from an old church and now grace the orangery. Other pieces, including the kitchen sink, were collected before the house project had even started.
“I spotted an old French butler’s sink at a market in Auckland, and another for one of the bathrooms. I was told they were not for sale, so I asked, ‘How much are they not for sale for?’ I came home with them and thought, ‘Right, now I have the kitchen sink, the house will follow.’”
The sinks, the floor timbers and the front doors – all carrying signs of lives well lived – are especially prized, but not everyone understands the attraction. When Rebecca-Jane eyes the wooden double front doors inset with iron grilles, she sees perfection. Others see only battered picture-theatre doors in need of work. While Rebecca-Jane loves the story her pitted old sinks tell, others recommend the perfect place to get them re-enamelled. And then there was the battle of the bathroom floor.
“My builder looked at me as if I had three heads when I said I wasn’t going to sand and polish my tawa floors sourced from an old woolshed. I didn’t want shiny and glossy; I wanted the oil stains and blotches of paint. They carry such a fabulous history – you can just see the sheep coming off the shears.”
Rebecca-Jane found the kauri floorboards for her guest room in a junk shop. These came complete with little holes which have created plenty of family fun.
“The kids used to rain wee paper balls through the holes to land on me when I worked at my office desk below. Plus, if you have lights on in the guest room, it looks like a laser show from below. Old floors are fabulous.”
The house comprises only walls, doors and windows, with nothing built-in, so all the furnishings needed to be free-standing, which prompted yet more searching for recycled gems in need of a new home. This approach has given the house a charming rusticity. Bathroom basins, for example, sit atop rustic timber tables, and old shop counters provide kitchen bench space.
Rebecca-Jane prides herself on the ability to provide a comfortable atmosphere and a sense of history in her home. Her decorative flair seems to have passed down to the next generation, with horse-and-ballet-mad Maggie’s room a riot of pink and green, while Moss’ room is one of a kind. Perhaps best described as a “boy cave”, its decorative delights include bones, skeletons, eggs, nests and stuffed animals in among the more typical Lego creations, posters and army figurines.
“He brings in bones and decrepitude he finds on the farm, while the tree branch suspended from the ceiling is something he dragged in from the forest one day,” his mum explains.
Rebecca-Jane understands creative minds and the importance of feeding the imagination. After all, it was her idea to include a secret passageway, with pint-sized access, for her children to clamber through, linking the main body of the house with the orangery.
“This house is my dream home,” she says. “And it becomes even more so as it evolves with the family and all the experiences we have here. The walls harbour some great memories, which we are continuing to create.”
Words by: Monique Balvert-O’Connor. Photography by: Angela Keoghan.